Book Review: The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

When the issue of anti-Semitism within Labour is put to the party’s leader of the past year, Jeremy Corbyn denounces all such prejudice within the passion for which he is renowned. Yet the man is obviously suffering from some sort of cognitive dissonance, for what else could explain the instances in which he became a willing propagandist for the murderous regime of Iran, accepting money to go on their state television and take calls from anyone with a diatribe about Israel to get off their chest? And why would a man, supposedly anti-sectarian, refer to members of hysterically anti-Semitic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as friends?

Perhaps it is naivety. When Ken Livingstone made his historically dubious claim that Hitler was a Zionist earlier this year, Corbyn seemed at a loss to understand what the fuss was about. Dave Rich, in his excellent new book, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism, studied the incident, concluding that Corbyn, be it out of naivety of plain old ignorance, cannot believe that anti-Semitism, traditionally found on the far right, could ever manifest itself on his end of the left. Thus the Labour leader is willing to associate himself with groups such as Hamas because, although he continually claims he does not agree with their beliefs, he broadly supporters them on the big issue: Israel.

Rich reminds us of the now forgotten time when the Labour Party was a strong supporter of an Israeli state, seeing it as reasonable compensation for the torment to which European Jews were subjected by Hitler and Stalin. This traditional, solidarity and class-based set of values was to be usurped however, by the more vain and superficial affectation of identity politics, when adopting positions that would pit you against your own government, or your own ‘side’ during the Cold War, was the best way to prove your radical credentials. Suddenly, the Jewish people, emboldened by the Six Day War and the conflict with Lebanon in 1982, no longer appeared as a weak and stateless people, but as nationalistic, militaristic and threatening. The New Left, of which Corbyn is a member, would lump Israel in with the wider opponent, imperial capitalism, of which the chief promulgator is the United States, enemy number one of the Sixties Left.

The west’s victory at the end of the Cold War brought about a new phenomenon: the truly gruesome alliance of the most reactionary and politicised form of Islam and Corbyn’s left, which has put rocket boosters on anti-Semitism. Labour is now stuck with a leader who will go out of his way to defend and support Jew-baiters and Holocaust deniers of all stripes, including Raed Salah and Paul Eisen, on the bases that their right to free speech must be defended, but would never extent fanatical Zionists the same curtesy. Engaging with Hamas is justified in order to ‘bring about peace,’ even though you need only to visit their website to learn that Hamas do not want peace, but want Israel eradicated.

Reading Rich’s book, it is clear that something has gone seriously, and perhaps fatally, wrong with the left. Socialism, defeated by the fall of the Iron Curtain and discredited by the misery that lay behind it, has taken comfort in conspiratorial thinking, out of which anti-Semitism, which the great German socialist August Bebel once called ‘the socialism of fools,’ can so often arise. Jews, so the old trope goes, are the secret puppet masters in control of the government, the media and the infrastructure. Bankrupt of ideas, the left has come to think in the same way, but with ‘global capitalism’ as the greater evildoer behind the curtain. But those money-grabbing Yids are behind finance too, so the ideas merge, and voila: anti-Semitism on the left.

Does any of this matter? Of course it does. Although the certain defeat of Jeremy Corbyn will not be a tragedy, the potential destruction of the Labour Party could be a catastrophic one. More importantly still, only a fool of the type Bebel identified believes anti-Semitism is a problem only for the Jews. It demeans and lowers all of society, and all political debate. You could say it poisons the well.

The Jewish people, it has been said, are people always on their guard, always anticipating new dangers. They look at Corbyn and see a clown, as many do, but one every bit as dangerous as the kind of odious people, racist parties and authoritarian governments with whom he associates. If the virus of anti-Semitism is to be eradicated, and if Labour is to become a serious party again, it is imperative we all develop that same tough mindset that now comes naturally to the Jews, and that was once referred to by Christopher Hitchens as preparedness for the worst.

Originally published on Backbench UK on 20 September 2016